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Wizard of Oz, The
What more can be said about one of the most iconic movies of all time, an evergreen title on home video since 1981 (the very first from MGM's video label, and also in their first wave of DVD titles before their classic library was lost to Warner) and a yearly TV tradition before that? Released in 1939, one of the biggest years for movies, it's based on a story written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum- which spawned an entire series of stories some of which were done as movies in the silent era. This is the version most know and love however, with Judy Garland as Dorothy- a simple Kansas farm girl who dreams of a better place "somewhere over the rainbow". A tornado hits her home sending it flying with her in it, crashing down in the land of Oz- killing the Wicked Witch of the East in the process and making her an instant hero. There are both good and bad witches throughout Oz, Glinda (Billie Burke) being one of the good ones. She entrusts Dorothy with the magical ruby slippers that had been held by the bad witch. The other wicked witch, of the West (Margaret Hamilton), appears determined to get the slippers back for herself, along with revenge. Dorothy decides she just wants to go back home at this point so she's sent down the yellow brick road which leads to the Emerald City, home of the Wizard himself. It's certain that he'll be able to get her back home somehow. Along the way she meets the story's three supporting characters: the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley) and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). All of them are missing one thing that would make them complete, so Dorothy suggests they join her and the Wizard will surely help them out also.
Of course you all know the story already, but I've seen this so many times (beginning with its annual TV airing on CBS sometime in the 1970s) that by now I have hundreds of questions which aren't answered. Mainly- how did Dorothy just assume that this wizard, who she's never met, is so willing to help out just anybody who goes to see him? It isn't like the entire population of Oz has been going to him to solve all their problems. The movie makes a number of changes from the original book- I had read all of those as a kid and remember being freaked out by the Tin Man's real story. Here he's just some man made out of tin, possibly someone's science project, but in the original story he was a woodsman who kept accidentally chopping off parts of his body and had them replaced with primitive tin prosthetics, until eventually his entire body had been replaced.
The movie of course is also a musical, but doesn't overload on the songs. Those that are present, written by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, are among the most well-known of all time. Garland's performance of "Over the Rainbow" at the beginning is legendary, but was almost taken out of the movie before release as it held up the story- some things never change. (Personally I would have axed Lahr's "King of the Forest"- it stops the narrative in its tracks and goes on far too long.) Much of the dialogue is also well-known by many and quoted in and out of context- it's been said that not a day goes by where somebody, somewhere doesn't use a line from this movie in one way or another. I'm not sure how many people currently have never seen this movie at all, but it seems everyone has at least heard somebody say "I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." If by chance you haven't seen The Wizard of Oz yet, what are you waiting for?
Picture, Sound and Subtitles:
This is to date the oldest movie released on the 4K Ultra HD format, coinciding with the film's 80th anniversary. The thing with this movie is that ever since its 50th anniversary video release in 1989 (which also had a theatrical run with new film prints), every edition that has come out has claimed to be the very best this movie has ever looked and in some cases ever will look- only to be outdone by yet another release a few years afterwards. Myself having several prior editions going back to the original 1981 issue on the failed CED format, it is fun to compare them all and see just how primitive the early editions looked compared to the latest- but I also don't believe in excessive digital cleanup, color brightening or other tricks to make anything look better than it was ever intended to. Unrelated, the 4k format so far hasn't really impressed me in the way the upgrade from DVD to Blu-Ray did. It seems there are only so many more improvements to be made in technology at this point.
Having said that, I was not blown away by this edition but it does look very good, and fortunately faithful to the original look without any obvious overenhancement. It may have been tempting for some to crank the colors up, but for the most part this looks like a film print in immaculate condition. The only colors that really "pop" are the greens outside the Emerald City- someone may have done a bit of tweaking on those but I can't say for sure. A famous element here is the opening scenes in Kansas were shot in black and white (actually sepia-toned, an effect that was lost in a few intervening years but present since the 1989 treatment) with a quick cut to Technicolor after arriving in Oz. These scenes allowed me to FINALLY get a better idea of how to properly set the brightness and contrast on my TV in Dolby Vision mode, as I still haven't been able to find any suitable test patterns. One issue in prior editions that is completely gone here is the mis-alignment of colors- particularly on film prints, it's been easy to spot the image separating into red, green and blue in some areas on account of the 3-strip Technicolor process used to shoot it originally. You won't see a hint of that here. All dirt and scratches seen in older transfers have been meticulously cleaned up here also, perhaps a bit too well but you can't really complain about that. Each time the transfer has been upgraded, the fact that everything was shot on a soundstage becomes all the more apparent- I could notice walls in the background which of course should not exist outside in the land of Oz. A nit-pick I've had is that the visible string holding up and moving Bert Lahr's tail has been digitally erased- it was visible in previous editions although it may not have looked as obvious in the original film prints.
The 4K disc is light years ahead of the old 1981 transfer which looked quite faded, but the previous Blu-Ray which is also included here (and where the pictures in this review were taken from) is still no slouch. The transfer is obviously different- the most noticeable and welcome upgrade on the 4K is that the credits are no longer windowboxed as they are on the standard Blu-Ray, they're presented as is since overscan is near non-existent on any 4K displays. I noticed the opening scenes had a slight flicker on the Blu-Ray that was not present on the 4K disc either. But overall, this simply isn't as big an upgrade as it was from regular DVD to Blu-Ray, and there's only so much work you can do on a movie this old that has been issued so many times.
The 4K disc comes up short in the sound department however- sound in 1939 was of course mono, but this movie has had a number of stereo re-mixes over the years and is presented here only with a 5.1 mix in DTS Master Audio. Both previous Blu-Ray issues included the original mono track as well, and that's really the way it's supposed to be heard. The 5.1 track certainly doesn't sound bad- while many stereo mixes of movies of this vintage have a fake-ness to them, much of this was more carefully reconstructed from original sound elements. Most notable is the sound of the tornado circling across the front and rear channels with a bit of subwoofer activity, but again theaters didn't have this in 1939. Fidelity is still a bit dated, not being able to lose its inherently lower quality than what we're used to these days.
As usual, Warner includes far more languages on this release than indicated on the cover, and for a movie as ubiquitous as this it's a nice bonus. I'm hoping to find time to re-watch this with each of them eventually. Some dubs also get the 5.1 remix while others are kept in mono- the 4K disc has French (though not clear if Parisian or Canadian), German, both Latin and Castilian Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Russian and Thai. Customarily Polish tracks feature one announcer rather unemotively translating whatever's being said, which is still heard underneath. Warner's usual hidden Japanese support is also here if you set your player's Disc Menu language accordingly. Disappointingly all of these tracks leave the songs in their original recordings with no translation- a few musicals on disc have had songs translated and those are fun to hear. The Blu-Ray has a bit fewer languages but gains Italian and Spanish tracks not found on the 4K disc. Subtitles on the 4K disc are French, German, Castilian and Latin Spanish, Dutch, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Arabic, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Russian and Thai, with the Blu-Ray losing a few of these but gaining Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Italian, and Swedish, with Japanese also hidden.
Both discs include the audio commentary track consisting mainly of "Oz" expert John Fricke and Barbara Freed-Saltzman with archival audio from others involved with the movie. (Fricke previously recorded his own commentary for MGM's "Ultimate Oz" laserdisc which was the first commentary track I ever listened to.) The 4K disc includes the "Making of a Movie Classic" special hosted by Angela Lansbury that originally aired after one of the last CBS network presentations of the movie in 1990 and has been included on numerous previous editions. The problem here is that it's been upscaled to 1080p resolution but encoded in 24 frames per second, so motion is rather jerky throughout and videotaped material looks nothing like it should.
The regular Blu-Ray is exactly the same as the previous 75th Anniversary edition and also included with the 3D converted edition, so I now have two copies of this. Accompanying the movie on this disc is an isolated music and sound effects track, mainly with the dialogue missing but vocals still present on most songs. A more recent making-of feature is included narrated by Martin Sheen, this time shot and produced in HD but still including some archival video footage at the wrong frame rate. The other extras are carried over from the last big DVD edition before HD came along- a "video storybook" narrated by Angela Lansbury that condenses the story and illustrations from the original book down to 10 minutes, featurettes on the lesser-known cast members, three vintage radio broadcasts promoting the movie, a few trailers mostly in standard def (one for the IMAX 3D release is included in hi-def, though only in 2D) and a "Jukebox" which is a staggering six hours of just about all known existing musical recordings done for this movie- this includes multiple takes and some music and songs not included in the final film (it's the only place here that includes the famous deleted "Jitterbug" song.) Finally there's some rather extensive stills galleries, but disappointingly these are in standard-def and suffer from the lower resolution as a result.
I do need to nit-pick a bit at the packaging for this release, as the labeling on the 4K disc is very plain. The Blu-Ray's labeling is full-color as it was previously. They're housed in a hole-filled Eco-Case, which seems unfitting for a timeless movie that should never be thrown away or recycled.
Everybody needs at least one copy of The Wizard of Oz in their movie collection- if it's still lacking from yours then of course you should pick this up. However it's certainly not a definitive edition, as the 4K presentation lacks the original audio track and the packaging is quite lackluster, with many of the extras in quality lower than they could have been. If you're a huge fan or completist as I am then this is worth having, but if you're happy with whatever previous edition you have already (keeping in mind that this includes the exact same standard Blu-Ray disc that has been out before) then I wouldn't rush to upgrade it at this point.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.